Until recently, the words “paid” and “internship” were rarely seen together. But with cross-party support for a ban on unpaid work placements, is there a chance that students will no longer have to pay for the privilege of  increasing their employment prospects? 

Employability: the student buzz word of 2012, where we are encouraged, nagged even, to work on building that perfect CV, create a good portfolio of work and get involved extra-curricular activities during our time at university.

The major debate involving employability right now is obviously the one about unpaid work internships. A move to ban them was met with cross-party support after Labour MP Hazel Blears put forward her 10-minute rule bill that would seek to end placements that break national minimum wage law. Last week a Youguv survey commissioned by the NUS found that 20% of 18-24 percent of students had done at least one unpaid internship compared to the 2-3% of people aged 40 or over.

NUS Vice-President Dannie Grufferty, who was once an unpaid intern herself, is strongly for the proposed legislation that would ban unpaid internships.

“Asking people to live and work for free is wrong,” she said. “The current situation in which young people are expected to undertake many months of unpaid work in order to gain sufficient experience simply must not go on any longer.

“With over a million young people not in education, employment or training we need to be clear now more than ever that young people’s enthusiasm and desire to work cannot be exploited. A fair day’s work always deserves a fair day’s pay.”

So far I’ve completed a total of four unpaid work placements from the age of 16; three of which were journalism-based. The first was at The Sun (I didn’t hack any phones, I swear) for a week when I was 17. The second was a week at the South Wales Evening Post last year. And the most recent was two months ago where I worked at Time Out Magazine in London for two weeks.

I definitely don’t regret doing the placements. My week at the Sun gave me an eye-opening experience of a professional newsroom, I got to work with some fantastic people and my work was published in three separate issues of the paper. And there was also that time I almost walked in to Rupert Murdoch’s office by accident. At the Evening Post I met some brilliant journalists, went out and about in Swansea talking to rowdy Welsh men about the Premier League, and got my name in print a couple more times. Time Out magazine was (so far) the best experience I’ve had on a work placement. I met the most welcoming group of people ever, explored parts of London I’d never been to before (and I grew up there), did work I loved, and got the opportunity to experience living and working professionally in one of the most exciting and diverse cities on the planet.

Saying all that though, my life would have been made a lot easier if I was paid for the work I did. It was very flattering being told by co-workers that the work I was doing was as good as anyone who would be paid to do the same, but it also added to my sense of injustice. If I was doing the same level of work as everyone else, for the same hours, and at apparently the same quality… where the hell was my salary? I cut my lunch breaks by an average of twenty minutes a day because I was so keen to get back to work. I said yes to every task I was given, no matter how boring. And I put up with the £2 a day I was given for lunch, despite the fact that you’re bloody lucky in central London if you can find a sandwich, drink and a piece of fruit for less than a fiver. Thinking about it now, I can probably safely say that I’ve “invested” just over £250 for those three work placements on travel and other expenses, which equates to about a month’s rent.

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The reason companies have been getting away with these unpaid placements is because of the increasing demand for work experience from young people seeking to improve their chances of employment. An experience close to home is that of my older brother who was 24 at the time, and who worked for a solid six months without being paid before he was hired by the same company. I met a few other interns at Time Out magazine, some of whom were planning on working there for two to three months. All were graduates, as this was during term time and those still at university will obviously go for placements during holidays where they don’t have to miss lectures (my priorities are slightly different).

One girl I met at Time Out had the most impressive list of work experience I’d ever seen. She did week or two week-long placements during the holidays at The Times, FHM, Closer and Heat, and two local area magazines: The Hill and The Resident. When she finished university she did a week at Zoo and then two weeks reviewing in Edinburgh for The Stage. After that she got a placement for seven weeks at Time Out which was seven weeks, where we met, then a week at the 3am website at The Mirror. She’s now at Cosmopolitan magazine for four weeks. So nearly six months of unpaid work, plus costs for travel and living without any income.

“I am fairly happy with the experience I’ve had,” she told me. “It’s made me realise that you really don’t learn very much about the working world at uni, so I think it’s definitely important to do work experience or an internship, particularly when in journalism at the moment jobs are so scarce. They need to know somebody is doing a job properly for them to get the coveted spots.

“Overall I feel like I am getting myself somewhere and while it can seem bleak at times, I know I’m making myself more employable. I don’t think it’s unjustified to have a sort of middle ground between uni and full time employment.”

Although positive about the experience gained during the placements, she was also very keen to stress that one of the positive aspects of Hazel Blears’ proposal for a ban would be better treatment of interns.

“The way some publications treat their interns is ridiculous. Obviously everyone is very busy and there’s nothing wrong with getting the workie to make the odd tea or open the post but some places and people have got to the point where they don’t even see such things as part of their job. That’s where Hazel Blears’ ban needs to come in.

“If the company think they’re basically doing someone a favour to have their fabulous magazine on their CV in return for menial jobs that provide no real experience of what it’s like to have a job in the industry, (particularly as week long placements are often so intimidating that it takes until your last day before you ask about anything outside the ‘daily’ duties), then it shouldn’t be happening.”

Since I’m planning on finding a couple of other work placements before I graduate it would be lovely to be able to know that I could be paid for my time. And it’s not just the NUS who should be fighting for this. Universities need to take the initiative and begin working with local communities and businesses to ensure students are getting a better deal.

Although I’m doubtful that this will actually happen before my own graduation; I hope it can become national legislation for future generations of students who are paying higher university fees. They deserve to get something in return  in return for their willingness to create opportunities for themselves.

By Roisin O’Connor

What’s your opinion on unpaid internships? Are they worth the experience or should young people be paid for their time? Post a comment below and let us know what you think.

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